For Heaney-as-a-boy the bricklayer was king of the post-war building site and therefore a giant of the world. In ‘Sandpit’ (from Station Island, 1984) he referred to his ‘demobbed bricklayer’, to the ‘merriment in the spirit level’s eye’ and the ‘song of his trowel’; he will return to the figure in ‘District and Circle’ of 2006: Mick Joyce is like a ‘demobbed Achilles ( ) Prince of the sandpiles’. In Damson Heaney likens him to a kind of altruistic ‘Odysseus in Hades’.
The sequence is an interweave of people, circumstances and myths, triggered by the homely smell of damsons being simmered to make jam to which he will return at the end.
The boy-watcher’s attention has been caught by sight of a wound: its heraldic blood-red colour (Gules); building-site effects (cement dust); its texture: matte tacky blood; where it is: on the bricklayer’s knuckles; what it resembles: like the damson stain / That seeped through his packed lunch. This latter element will contribute to the coda.
His work is temporarily halted: A full hod stood / Against the mortared wall: the tools he uses are in limbo: his big bright trowel / In his left hand (for once) was pointing down. The man can scarcely believe what has happened (he marvelled); his first aid knowledge, however, has taught him how to reduce blood-flow: right hand held high and raw:
This giant amongst men has been brought low: King of the castle, scaffold-stepper, shown / Bleeding to the world. Heaney reveals the historical moment (Wound that I saw / In glutinous colour fifty years ago – he was under ten) and how it was to prove portentous (Damson as omen, weird, a dream to read) akin to what he would glean from stories from classical mythology or learn about WWII above all a foreboding of what would come to pass during the Northern Irish ‘Troubles’ : a weeping wound symbolic of the held-at-arm’s-length dead / from everywhere and nowhere, here and now.
- gules: red, as a heraldic tincture;
- matte: thick, untidy mess;
- hod: builder’s V-shaped open trough on a pole, used for carrying bricks and other building materials;
- marvelled: was filled with wonder or astonishment;
- King of the castle: from the opening line of a children’s rhyme; denoting the most powerful person;
- scaffold: here a reference to scaffolding, the temporary structure on the outside of a building under construction or repair;
- glutinous: like glue in texture; sticky;
- weeping: dual intention – exuding liquid, shedding tears;
Heaney focuses on the bricklaying methodology of his classical hero: its repetition Over and over; the sounds, textures and ‘nature’ of the cement: the slur, the scrape and mix ( ) as he laid down / Courses of glum mortar; the tiny movements and sounds of coaxing the building blocks into place: bricks / Jiggled and settled, tocked and tapped in line.
The boy was taken by the trowel’s shine; he recognized the paradox: Its edge and apex always coming clean / And brightening itself after being involved with dirty mortar (mucking in).
Heaney’s superman made light work of his weapon: when he lifted it there was no strain, whichever of the particular jobs he was engaged in It was all point and skim and float and glisten. But the way he maintained the trowel (he washed and lapped it tight in sacking) lent it unwritten status: Like a cult blade that had to be kept hidden (he is implying that once visible then the tool or sword has to be put to use as, for example, the Gurkha ‘kukri’ sword which once unsheathed must be used).
- slur: noun chosen to illustrate the spreading of wet cement onto the surface upon which bricks will be laid;
- courses: bricklayers refer to ascending lines of bricks as ‘courses’;
- tocked: onomatopoeic variation to add a hollow sound to the positioning of bricks (produced by the wooden handle of the trowel used as a hammer);
- apex: highest point;
- mucking: a double meaning; bricklayers refer to cement familiarly as muck‘; ‘mucking in’ is rolling your sleeves up and sharing tasks;
- skim: passing over and lightly smoothing a surface; also the name of the trowel used for this process;
- float: move slowly and lightly over a surface; also the name of the trowel used for this process;
- cult blade: some cultures possess a weapon that also passes as a spiritual object; Heaney provides no examples, however Indonesian and Malay venerate the ‘kris’, a dagger often considered to have an essence or presence, considered to possess magical powers;
Heaney focuses on the victims of bloody assassination from ‘from everywhere and nowhere’ seeking to escape from the purgatory (see Odyssey note below) in which they are incarcerated (Ghosts with their tongues out for a lick of blood / Are crowding up the ladder) looking as they did at the moment of death all unhealed, / And some of them still rigged in bloody gear. (The blood stained ghost of William Strathearn, murdered by the RUC during the Troubles appears to Heaney in Station Island VII.)
Faced with their presence the speaker instructs his bricklayer/hero to Drive them back to the scene of their murder (the doorstep or the road) and the circumstances of their death Where they lay in their own blood once, in the hot / Nausea and last gasp of dear life .
His 1940s bricklayer Trowel-wielder, woundie, has the strength and the sacred weapon to drive the ghosts elsewhere Like Odysseus in Hades lashing out / With his sword that dug the trench and cut the throat / Of the sacrificial lamb (see Odyssey note below).
The strategy reveals the poet’s brotherly love: an ostensibly aggressive action is actually the life-restoring gift of a Builder, not sacker, your shield the mortar board returning victims not to suffering but to a source of life-restoring pleasure: the wine-dark taste of the Irish homes they came from with the seasonal smell of damsons simmering in a pot and the sight of Jam ladled thick and steaming down the sunlight.
- lick: taste with the tongue;
- rigged: dressed in a particular way, here probably as 1970s Ulster lookalikes;
- gasp: a convulsive catching of breath;
- woundie: an endearing form of address referring to the injured bricklayer;
- Odysseus in Hades: in Book 11 of Homer’s ‘Odyssey’ Odysseus travels to the Underworld and makes offerings according to Circe’s instructions. The shades of the dead (shades = ghosts) gather to drink the sacrificial blood of a sacrificial lamb (metaphorical reference to an animal ritually sacrificed as an offering) before talking to Odysseus;
- sacker: plunderer, looter;
- mortar board: a rigid square of light material, held by the bricklayer with which cement was transferred to the point where bricks would be laid;
- In ‘Damson’ the childhood memory of a bricklayer’s bloodied hand promotes him, in the literary present of the poem, to the status of Odysseus in the underworld in the Odyssey, a ‘translation’ continuous with Heaney’s Virgilian and Dantean translations NC 189
- cited from McCarty lecture to HSIS in Galway of Nov 2007: ‘Seamus Heaney metamorphoses a bricklayer ( ) into Odysseus, in the Homeric katabasis of the Odyssey, book 11, driving off the souls of the dead as they emerge from the lower world to drink the blood of his sacrifice.
- (1) is of 12 lines with 2 split lines; 4 sentences of 10 syllables;
- he balance between punctuation and enjambed lines sets rhythm and flow of recitation;
- no formal scheme but a number of irregularly placed rhymes;
- individual word is heraldic; the vocabulary of liquidity opens the possibility of metaphor; everyday tradesman’s language is objective;
- use of simile: ‘like the damson stain’; ‘Damson as omen’;
- pun ‘weeping’;
- occasional music: the trumpets of ‘King of the Castle’ change to a sustained violin note after ‘weeping’;
- (2)12 lines composed as 5 sentences; the presence of many enjambed lines;
- Slightly irregular 9/10 syllable lines; some rhyming early in the piece;
- Nouns and verbs in cluster following the sequences of the bricklaying process using everyday tradesman’s language ‘point and skim and float’; sound the dominant sense alongside sight
- Vocabulary contrasting light and dark, cheerful and gloomy; paradox of ‘brightening’/ ’mucking’;
- (3) sonnet form in 4 sentences; volta after ‘sacrificial lamb’; line length – stricter 10 syllables; occasional irregular rhymes;
- an air of the hellish corner a Renaissance Creation canvas; vocabulary exudes unpleasantness;
- use of imperatives : ‘drive’;
- an echo word: ‘trench’ with its nasty smell of social division;
- massive change of mood music: the opulent welcome of home after a series of revolting scenes;
- Heaney is a meticulous craftsman using combinations of vowel and consonant to form a poem that is something to be listened to.
- the music of the poem: twelve assonant strands are woven into the text; Heaney places them grouped within specific areas to create internal rhymes , or reprises them at intervals or threads them through the text:
- alliterative effects allow pulses or beats or soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies:
- the first triplet of ‘Damson’, for example, brings together bilabial plosive [b] and alveolar [t] alongside nasals [m] and [n] with a cluster of sibilant [s];
- it is well worth teasing out the sound clusters for yourself to admire the poet’s sonic engineering:
- Consonants (with their phonetic symbols) can be classed according to where in the mouth they occur
- Front-of-mouth sounds voiceless bi-labial plosive [p] voiced bi-labial plosive [b]; voiceless labio-dental fricative [f] voiced labio-dental fricative [v]; bi-labial nasal [m]; bilabial continuant [w]
- Behind-the-teeth sounds voiceless alveolar plosive [t] voiced alveolar plosive [d]; voiceless alveolar fricative as in church match [tʃ]; voiced alveolar fricative as in judge age [dʒ]; voiceless dental fricative [θ] as in thin path; voiced dental fricative as in this other [ð]; voiceless alveolar fricative [s] voiced alveolar fricative [z]; continuant [h] alveolar nasal [n] alveolar approximant [l]; alveolar trill [r]; dental ‘y’ [j] as in yet
- Rear-of-mouth sounds: voiceless velar plosive [k] voiced velar plosive [g]; voiceless post-alveolar fricative [ʃ] as in ship sure, voiced post- alveolar fricative [ʒ] as in pleasure; palatal nasal [ŋ] as in ring/ anger.